Kars, Turkey, Nov 10 (Reuters) - The dapper, gently spoken mayor of Kars in eastern Turkey, Naif Alibeyoglu, dreams of lifting Ankara's 11-year-old border blockade of nearby Armenia and turning his sleepy, impoverished town into an economic hub of the southern Caucasus region.
Alibeyoglu has collected 50,000 local signatures calling for an end to the blockade, imposed over Christian Armenia's occupation of the Karabakh region inside Muslim Azerbaijan, Turkey's ally.
"Everybody here wants the border reopened. This would help bring peace and prosperity to the whole region. Trade is the best weapon in the world against conflict," said Alibeyoglu.
He said local initiatives could help build a spirit of trust and interdependence across borders, even as the Karabakh conflict continues to defy a diplomatic solution.
Russian-built neo-classical buildings as well as Armenian churches -- many of them now mosques -- testify to Kars's special history as a frontier town used to looking outwards. It was even incorporated into the Russian Empire for several decades until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Alibeyoglu said Turkey's current blockade of Armenia was only partial and that Kars bore the brunt of the pain.
"There are now charter flights bringing Armenians to Turkey. There are about 50,000 Armenians working illegally in the country. You can find Armenian vodka and brandy on the streets of Istanbul, but the land border stays closed," he said.
Armenian products enter Turkey by way of third countries such as Georgia or Iran, adding greatly to transport costs.
"Imagine how we and they would benefit if the road and rail links were restored. Kars is much nearer to Armenian cities than to the main Turkish cities," said Alibeyoglu, a member of Turkey's ruling centre-right Justice and Development Party.
Turkey shut its remote mountainous border with the tiny ex-Soviet republic of Armenia in 1993 to show solidarity with oil-rich Azerbaijan over the Karabakh issue, populated largely by ethnic Armenians but assigned in Soviet times to Baku. By the time of a 1994 truce, an estimated 35,000 people had been killed.
Alibeyoglu's optimism about lifting Turkey's blockade and opening diplomatic relations is not shared in Ankara.
"This is not just about the border or even about Karabakh. Armenia lays claim to a slice of Turkish territory and also wants us to recognise the so-called Armenian 'genocide'," said Gunduz Aktun, head of the Ankara-based Eurasian Research Centre.
Armenia does not recognise the 1921 Kars treaty which fixed the border between the then-Soviet Union and Turkey.
The genocide claim is another major obstacle to better ties. Armenians say some 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923.
Turkey denies charges of genocide, saying the Armenians were among the victims of a partisan war during World War One as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Ankara accuses the Armenians of carrying out massacres while siding with invading Russian troops.